By Ina Martin
Nene had waited for the messenger a long time. She had roamed restlessly in the garden, the wooden bridge over the meandering brook treaded thin by her small geta, her eyes gliding blindly over the snow, staring past the delicate pink of the sakura. The fragile beauty of the snowflakes and the delicate scent of the flowers left her indifferent, and the birds sang in vain for her. In her memory a sole scene would play out again and again – her husband placing the kabuto on his head, the scent of sandalwood drifting to her, clogging up her throat until it was tight and dry. A courtesy to the enemy if his head were to be taken, the smell of incense had made her feel queasy ever since she had seen him off to battle for the first time. She had stepped to him, and the words had tumbled out against her will.
“Anata-sama... live for me, please.”
He had placed a tender kiss on her forehead, a generous absolution for her selfishness, and walked out.
When she had first met Kagami no Ryūichiro Yasumori, a week before their union, Nene had not known how precious to her he would come to be, how easy it would become for him to coax a smile out of her when she felt like it least, how she would die and be reborn by his touch. She had never thought that being separated from him could cut through her as cleanly as his daitō slashing through the enemy flesh.
The timid voice of her servant Tami brought her out of her reminiscence.
“What is it, Tami?”
“Would ohime-sama like dinner to be served?”
“No, Tami. I am not hungry.”
“Gentle blooms need sustenance, else they would wilt and die.” Tami’s eyes revealed what she could not say – her loyal servant was beyond herself with worry for her ohime-sama. Nene steadfastly tried to ignore her, but when Tami’s bottom lip began to tremble she had to give in. It had been the same ever since her husband had gone to battle. She should probably be grateful for Tami’s perseverance, but it was hard to focus on anything but the buzzing refrain in her head, He ought to have returned by now.
Uninvited and undesired, a memory came to her mind, of a moment she had tried hard not to remember.
Some time before he was to go to his first battle as a wedded man, they had been sitting on the veranda, enjoying the warm autumn evening, the maple trees in the garden set aflame by the setting sun. Nene had just poured some more sake in her husband’s cup. After taking a sip, he had placed it down, and given her a look she recognised as a precursor to bad news.
“There is a matter I need to discuss with you, Nene, but it is not an agreeable one.” He took her hand in his and gave it a brief squeeze.
“If I do not return from battle, you know what you’re expected to do.”
Nene nodded, the lump in her throat choking her hard.
“I want you to know that I would not ask that of you. The choice is yours, and should your heart tell you not to do it, please, live. Live for me.”
Nene tried in vain to blink the dampness away from her eyes, and took a deep breath before saying calmly, “I would follow anata-sama always, anywhere. There is no other choice for me.”
He reached and gently pressed her hand again. “You know I would never ask it of you, Nene... that you would do it means more to me than words can convey. Yet remember – let the choice be yours, and yours only.”
She shook her head, and chased the memory away. Surely the gods would not be as cruel as to let him die before they had had their first child. They had not been lucky so far, but that meant nothing; they had been wed less than two years, and Nene knew other women who had conceived later in their union. It was certainly not unheard of. That her husband had not begun to consider taking a sokushitsu was a proof that he believed in her still, that he did not need anyone else. Whenever her heart felt heavy with the feeling of failure, that thought comforted her, wrapping around her like the soothing waters of the Arima hot springs.
It had not been for lack of trying – she ought to be affronted by his passion, only fit to be shown to a sokushitsu, not a noble lady as she, and had it been anyone but he, she would have. Not he, however. Never he. All rules of conduct she had learnt since early childhood disappeared when he took her in his arms, and there was only his touch and the way he made her feel – cherished and loved. They could forget about the world in those precious, private moments, propriety be damned, and be just a man and a woman holding each other tight. In the morning they would never talk about it, never stray from the proper conduct, but the nights were theirs to treasure.
Her mind drifted again to the first time he had ridden out to battle after their wedding. She had barely kept herself composed until she was alone in that very same garden. Then she had slid down to her knees by the pond, and had gazed with unseeing eyes at it until darkness fell and Tami cajoled her inside. It had been a quick campaign, yet it had felt like an eternity. The tastiest of foods had felt like bark in her mouth, and her nights had been spent staring at the panels of the room which held so many precious memories.
Yet that had been nothing compared to the long agony of the present. Hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and still he did not return. Did he still live, or had his head become the trophy of a faceless bushi?
“Dinner is ready, ohime-sama.”
Nene sighed. “Thank you, Tami. I shall not be long.” Her stomach clenched in protest at the thought of food, but she gritted her teeth and slowly headed to the house.
The sun was shining bright on the day the messenger found her in the garden. Surely he could not be bringing bad news, not on such a lovely summer afternoon? Her anxious gaze could not read his narrow face, or his calm voice.
“I am seeking for Nene-gozen?”
“Have you news of my lord? Does he live?” The words flew from her mouth unchecked, and her cheeks coloured with shame at her forwardness. She sensed the answer before it had formed on his lips.
“No...” she whispered, her hand flying to her chest. “Tell me he is well and will return soon! Tell me!” She hardly dared breathe as she awaited for him to speak.
The messenger gave her a rueful look. “He died a warrior’s death, hime-sama. He asked me to tell you the decision still lies with you.”
Nene slowly dropped to the ground, legs suddenly too weak to hold her. “He did not have to say that. My choice was made long ago.” She slowly pulled the small knife out of the folds of her kosode, and held it gently, fingers caressing it for a few moments.
“I am coming, anata-sama. I am coming...” She pulled the blade out of its sheath, time standing as still as the little pond on a day breathless with the lack of even the lightest breeze while the sun’s rays reflected off the sleek, deadly surface. The messenger watched silently as she ran her forefinger along the blade, tiny red drops welling in a perfect straight line. Then Nene put the tip on her throat, paused for a second, then resolutely thrust it in.
As she fell down, the blood spurting out from the deep gash, her eyes fell on the messenger. Her vision was blurring, but she could still see the transformation which took over him. His features sharpened and he dropped down to all fours, legs and arms shortening, changing into dainty paws. His hair turned red and spread across his body, until a fox stood before her, his face still somehow vaguely human in its compassion.
“ Ki... tsune?” Nene gasped. “Wh-why?”
“Because we feel just as strongly as you humans. The way he whispered your name could have brought the moon down from the sky.” With that he turned, and scurried away.
“Th-thank you...” she breathed out, her eyes flittering shut.